Category Archives: Inequality

On digital happiness


Are digital technologies making people across the world any happier?  I recently posed this question on social media, commenting that I did not think they were, and was challenged by a colleague from Africa who implied that it was obvious that ICTs had increased human happiness in his part of the world.  Whilst I have touched on this issue in my previous work (ICT4D, 2009,  and Reclaiming ICT4D, 2017), I have never really teased out the difficult issues involved in answering such questions, preferring instead to focus mainly on the impact on inequality of economic growth supported by technological innovation , and the differences between development agendas based on absolute and relative definitions of poverty.  It is timely to address this issue in a little more depth.

Defining happiness

Butterfly mediumA large part of the challenge in exploring the relationships between digital technologies and happiness depends on the controversial issue of how happiness is defined.  Philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, theologians, and even economists have long debated what happiness really is, and each has their own definition.  In psychology, one of the best-known approaches to happiness is Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, but self-determination theory, free-choice approaches (see some of Inglehart‘s work, as well as Sen’s notions), and positive psycholoy (largely influenced by Seligman) all have much to say about happiness.

In very general terms, happiness is a collective word to describe positive feelings such as success, amusement, gratification and joy.  Many of the difficulties with the word derive from the observation that although we may know when we feel happy or sad, we do not always know the cause of the emotion, and it is not easy to measure it consistently.  Indeed, at the extremes, one person’s happiness might be another person’s sadness.  It is thus perfectly possible that one person playing digital games for six hours on end could feel elated as a result, whilst another could feel suicidal.  This illustrates the well-known view that digital technologies act primarily as an accelerator of things such as economic growth or human emotion.

Digital technologies, international development and happiness

Over the last two decades some work has explicitly explored the interface between  digital technologies, international development and happiness. As noted above, my own work has briefly explored this, as for example has Heeks in his 2012 paper on ICTs and Gross National Happiness.  Both of us, I think independently, were drawn to this important notion coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, and have highlighted its role in leading Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as a key indicator of progress, emphasising that development should be holistic, combining both well-being and economic growth.  This clearly runs counter to the global hegemony on development largely as economic growth, which is enshrined in the MDGs and SDGs, and sees digital technologies as one of the prime drivers of such growth.

There are also now various new initiatives that are explicitly exploring the interface between digital technologies and happiness.  One of the most interesting of these is the University of Oslo TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture’s HAPPY project focusing on Responsible innovation and happiness: a new approach to the effects of ICTs, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.  Its core objective is to explore how we can “assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICTs research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories”.  One of its partners is NUPI, which has also published Maurseth’s (2017) useful overview on ICT, growth and happiness.

On the dehumanisation of labour

AI for Bad 2019

Most people still read this as “AI for Good”; image altered to make the point!

Until recently most digital technologies or ICTs have been largely seen as agents for good.  The ITU’s “AI for Goood”, or the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress with its 2018 slogan “Creating a Better Future” are but two graphic examples of this.  Underlying this positive image, though, have been the very significant advertising efforts of large global corporations eager to expand their markets by focusing exclusively on the positive benefits brought by ICTs; they truly make the world better, and people happy!   Moreover, this is all too frequently represented through the logic of increasing economic growth, and reducing absolute poverty.

Back in the 19th century Marx wrote passionately about the ways through which the rise of the factory system under capitalism dehumanized labour.  Very similar arguments have also been applied to the ways through which digital technologies are dehumanizing not only labour, but also many other aspects of human life as well in the 21st century (see my, 2016, Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things, and more fully in Reclaiming ICT4D).  Almost by definition, dehumanization seems opposed to happiness.   Two simple digital examples can be used to illustratge this.  E-mails and online learning have dramatically extended the working day for office labourers who are now usually expected to be available online wherever they are for well beyond the traditional norm of 8 hours daily work – are they happyer as a result?  Likewise, 3D-printing is now replacing the happiness of human craftsmanship involved in creating fine objects.

Much more worrying, though, is the dark side of digital technologies, which is all too often hidden from the innocent eye.  To be sure, digital technologies do indeed have many positive benefits, but increasing research and attention are now at last shedding more light on their negative aspects.   UNICEF’s (2017) excellent report on Children in a Digital World, for example, provides a well balanced account of both the positive aspects of digital technologies and the harm that they can do.  Increasing evidence points to the link between smartphone use and depression amongst young people (see for example Twenge, 2017), addiction to digital technologies is becoming a growing concern (Brown, 2017) with clinics being set up across the world to treat it (see also Gregory, 2019), online gambling has been widely criticised for the harm it causes, and the role of social media in the rising tide of suicides is now being seen as an urgent prioirty that needs to be addressed by governments.  All these provide clear evidence that digital technologies do not always lead to the blissful happiness promoted in the advertising campaigns of digital corporations.

On method – historical and comparative

There is a clear need for much further research on the conditions under which digital technologies can indeed lead to greater human happiness, and those where they lead to a downard spiral of misery.  Methodologically, we need both historical and comparative studies to identify who is happier and why they are so when they use these technologies.  We need to understand more about the longitudinal experiences of those who were alive before computers and mobile phones became readly available and affordable.  We also need to understand much better what it is that enables some people to use digital technologies quite happily, whereas for others they can be the cause of misery so severe that people kill themselves.

The digitisation of human life

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what the future holds.  It has traditionally been thought that human happiness comes in part from the use of all of our senses of feeling, touching, seeing, hearing and smelling.  If this is so, happiness can be seen to derive in large part from fulfilment of this sentient being in the world.  Sitting for hours in front of a computer or other digital device has already been widely condemned for the negative health impacts that it causes: obesity, muscle degeneration, eye damage, back pain, and organ damage.  This is hardly happiness.  However, with the increasing commingling of human and machine, it may be that our cyborg future will no longer require traditional sentient experiences for us to be happy.  Our happiness may derive in the future from electrical impulses directed by neurally connected chips to stimulate feelings of happiness.  The rise of Transhumanism (H+), and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to have microchips inserted in their bodies, is but one more step on this journey.

BirdI am privileged to have been born long before mobile phones existed, and vividly recall the first laptops, digital typewriters, and the pleasure of physically printing out cards to run my Fortran programmes.  I have also had the pleasure of recovering from broken bones, and the exhilarating happiness of playing the sports that caused them!  This has given me the sense that living life to the full as humans, being truly happy, does indeed require use to use all our senses.   We need wide public debate on the future relationships that we want to have with machines, a debate not driven by the economic interests of global capital, but one in which the joys of human sentient happiness can also be applauded and priortised.

 

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Reflections on Buenos Aires


The invitation to give a Keynote Address at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) excellent President’s meeting last month, provided me with a wonderful opportunity to spend a little bit of time exploring the fascinating city of Buenos Aires.  I had never been there before, and I left with many contradictory memories in my mind.  I hope that the pictures and reflections below capture something of these.

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My lasting memory, is of the diversity yet uniformity of the city.  Laid out on its grid plan from the 19th century, blocks are dominated mostly by 6-10 storey grey buildings, in various states of dilapidation, with a wide range of different commercial uses on the ground floor.  There seemed to be little attempt at commercial zoning; shoe shops were next to ones selling fruit and vegetables on one side and mobile phones on the other.

It is hard for people living in Europe or North America to appreciate that in the early 20th century Argentina was among the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income; it was richer than either France or Germany, and had outgrown Canada and Australia in population, total income, and per capita income.  This huge wealth is still visible in the moumental buildings spread widely apart across the city: the theatres, mansions, and buildings of state.  Yet its subsequent economic decline and political turmoil also remains all too visible.

The city’s large size, and the dispersed character of its monuments, made me feel that it had little obvious centre.  Yes, people point to the Obelisco at the crossing between Av. 9 de Julho and Av. Corrientes as its centre; others emphasise the importance of the Plaza de Mayo and the Av. de Mayo leading west towards the Congreso de la Nación Argentina from the Casa Rosada.  However, for me it still lacks a central throbbing heart.  New growth and development is scattered apparently haphazardly through the city, in parts of Palermo or to the east by the old harbour.

It is also amazingly ethnically and culturally diverse; hugely European, yet little like Europe.  Somehow there remains the sense of an indigenous undercurrent from before the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, but this has been almost completely obliterated by the waves of European settlements; mainly Spanish, Italians, and Germans.  By the early 20th centry it is estimated that just under a third of the population had been born overseas.  This European identity of the 19th and early 20th centuries remains very visible in the built landscape and in the culture of the city.  The grand opera house, the Teatro Colon, is reputed to be one of the five best concert venues in the world in terms of acoustics.  Nearby are other theatres, such as the impressive Teatro Nacional Cervantes; the Teatro Gran Splendid to the north-west opened in 1919, and a century later the bookshop that now fills its balconies has been described by National Geographic as the most beautiful in the world.

This European culture is embedded in its music; it helped me understand why the cultural evening generously laid on for us included, surprisingly for me, classical ballet and music, alongside the challenging songs of Nacha Guevara, and the stunning beauty and passion of the tango.

And the wealth of a growing middle class is increasingly visible in the plush shopping malls of the Galerias Pacifico or in the old railway arches of Distrito Arcos in Palermo; gated communities nearby enable the rich to watch out over the city, in which poor beggars sleep on the streets underneath any shelter they can find.

I have never been anywhere in the world where there have been so many people calling out “Cambio”, “Cambio”, wanting to change your money on the streets; scarcely surprising when it is so difficult to change it legally elsewhere, and the cashpoint machines charge almost 20% for transactions!

Many people like the old cemetery at Recoleta; I found it depressing, and an omnipresent reminder of the faded past of the city.  But the white brightness of the adjacent Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar next door was a reminder of the vital present, and the neighbouring Centro Cultural Recoleta a vibrant, colour-filled explosion of life.  The lively market nearby provided me with the opportunity to purchase a much-wanted multi-coloured gaucho belt.

Thanks to all those in Buenos Aires, for this wonderful opportunity; and I haven’t even started on the huge steaks and the delicious Malbec wines…

 

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Filed under capitalism, Conferences, Dance, Inequality, Latin America, Photographs, Politics

Why the notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution is so problematic


Watching a video last Wednesday at UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week produced by Huawaei on the Fourth Industrial Revolution reminded me of everything that is problematic and wrong with the notion: it was heroic, it was glitzy, women were almost invisible, and above all it implied that technology was, and still is, fundamentally changing the world.  It annoyed and frustrated me because it was so flawed, and it made me think back to when Klaus Schwab first gave me a copy of his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2016.  I read it, appreciated its superficially beguiling style, found much of it interesting, but realised that the argument was fundamentally flawed (for an excellent review, see Steven Poole’s 2017 review in The Guardian).  Naïvely,  I thought it was just another World Economic Forum publication that would fade away into insignificance on my bookshelves.  How wrong I was!  Together with the equally problematic notion of Frontier Technologies (see my short critique), it has become a twin-edged sword held high by global corporations and the UN alike to describe and justify the contemporary world, and their attempts to change it for the better.  Whilst I have frequently challenged the notion and construction of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I have never yet put togther my thoughts about it in a brief, easy to read format. Huawei’s video has provoked this response built around five fundamental problems.

Problem 1: a belief that technology has changed, and is changing the world

All so-called industrial revolutions are based on the fundamentally incorrect assumption that technology is changing the world.  With respect to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab thus claims that “The premise of this book is that technology and digitization will revolutionalize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage “this time is different” apt.  Simply put, major technological innovations are on the brink of fueling momentous change throughout the world – inevitably so” (Schwab, 2016, section 1.2; see also Schwab, 2015).  The entire edifice of the Fourth Industriual Revolution is built on this myth.  However, technology itself does not change anything.  Technology is designed by people for particular purposes that serve very specific interests.  It is these that change the world, and not the technology.  The reductionist,  instrumental and deterministic views inherent within most notions of a Fourth Industrial Revolution are thus highly problematic.

In the popular mind, each so-called industrial revolution is named after a particular technology: the first associated with mechanisation, water,  steam power and railways in the late-18th and early-19th centuries; the second, mass production and assembly lines enabled by electricity in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the third, computers and automation from the 1960s; and the fourth, often termed cyber-physical systems, based on the interconnectivity between  physical, biological and digital spheres, from the beginning of the 21st century.  However, all of these technologies were created by people to achieve certain objectives, usually to make money, become famous, or simply to overcome challenges.  It is the same today.  It is not the technologies that are changing the world, but rather the vision, ingenuity and rapaciousness of those who design, build and sell them.  Humans still have choices.  They can design technologies in the interests of the rich and powerful to make them yet richer and more powerful, or they can seek to craft technologies that empower and serve the interests of the poor and marginalised.  Those developing technologies associated with so-called “smart cities” can thus be seen as marginalising those living in rural areas and in what might disparagingly be called “stupid villages”.

Problem 2: a revolutionary view of history

Academics (especially historians and geographers) have long argued as to whether human society changes in an evolutionary or a revolutionary way.  There have thus been numerous debates as to how many agricultural revolutions there were that preceded or were associated with the so-called (first) industrial revolution (Overton, 1996). Much of this evidence suggests that whilst “revolutions” are nice, simple ideas to capture the essence of change, in reality they build on developments that have evolved over many years, and it is only when these come together and are reconfigured in new ways, to serve specific interests, that fundamental changes really occur.

For example, the Internet was initially used almost exclusively by academics, with the first e-mail systems being developed in the 1970s, and the World Wide Web in the 1980s, largely in an academic context.  It was only when the commercial potential of these technologies was fully realised in the latter half of the 1990s that use of the Web really began to expand rapidly.  In this context, most things associated with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution actually seem to be extensions of ideas that existed very much earlier.  The notion of integrated physical-biological systems is, for example, not something dramatically new in the 21st century, but rather has its genesis in the notion of cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, at least as early as the 1960s.

More importantly, the main drivers of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution go back many centuries, and each previous “revolution” was merely an evolving process to find new ways of configuring them.  If there was any fundamental “revolutionary” change, it occurred in the rise of individualism and the Enlightenment during the 17th century in Europe.  Even this had many precursors.  Fully to understand the digital economies of the 21st century, we need to appreciate the shift in balance from communal to individual interests some four centuries previously.  Once it was appreciated that individual investment in the means of production could generate greater productivity and profit, and institutions were set in place to enable this (such as land enclosure, patent law and copyright), then the scene was set for “money bent upon accretion of money”, or capital (Marx, 1867), to become the overaching driver of an increasingly global economic system in the centuries that followed.  The interests underlying the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution are largely the same as those driving the economic, social and political systems of the previous 400 years: market expansion and a reduction of labour costs through the use of technology.  It is these interests, rather than the technologies themeselves that are of most importance.

Problem 3: an élite view of history

The notion of industrial revolutions is also largely an expression of an élite view of history. It is about, and written by, the élites who shape them and enable them.  It is about the owners of the factories rather than the labourers, it is about innovative geniuses rather than the peasants labouring to produce food for them, and it is about the wise politicians who see the potential of these technologies to transform the world in their own image.  Certainly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is premised on an assumption that global corporations and brilliant innovative minds are driving the technological revolution that will change the world for what they see as being the better.  It is also no coincidence that the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was established in the USA, and that most of its proponents seem to be drawn from US élites (see for example the World Economic Forum’s video What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?).  The notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution clearly serves the interests of USAn élite politicans, academics and business leaders far more than it does the poor and marginalised living in remote rural areas of South Asia, or the slums of Africa.

Counter to such views are those of academics and practitioners who argue that history should be as much about the poor and underprivileged as it is about their political,  military or industrial leaders.  The poor have left few historical records about their lives, and yet they vastly outnumber the few élite people who have ruled and controlled them.  Traditional history has been the history of the literate, designed to reinforce their positions of power, and this remains true of accounts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In 2017, Oxfam reported that eight people thus owned the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity; five of these people made most of their wealth directly from the technology sector.  In an increasingly unequal world, the way to create greater equality cannot be through the use of the technologies that have created those inequalities in the first place.  Rather, to change the global balance of power, there needs to be a history that focuses on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised, rather than one that glorifies élites in the interests of maintaining their hold over power.

Problem 4: male heroes of the revolution

One of the most striking and shocking features of the Huawei video that prompted this critique was that almost all of the people illustrated as the heroes of the industrial revolutions were men.  Most historical accounts of industrial revolutions likewise focus on male innovators and industrialists, and yet women played a very significant part in shaping the outcomes of these tecchnological changes, not least in their roles as workers and as mothers.  Not only are accounts of industrial revolutions élite histories, they are mainly also male histories.  It is thus scarcely surprising that men continue to dominate the rhetoric and imagery of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, despite the efforts of those who have sought to reveal the important role that women such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Radia Perlman played in the origins of digital technologies (see techradar, 2018).

The perspective of a masculine revolutionary view of societal change presents significant challenges for those of us working to involve more women and girls in science and technology (see for example TEQtogether).  Much more needs to be done to highlight the roles of women in history, especially histories of technology, and to encourage girls to appreciate the roles that these women have played in the past and thus the potential they have to change the future themselves (see for example, the Women’s History Review and the Journal of Women’s History).  Otherwise, the masculine domination of the digital technology sector will continue to reproduce itself in ways that reproduce the gender inequalities and oppression that persist today.

Problem 5: the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Finally, the idea of a heroic, male industrial revolution has been promoted in large part as a self fulfilling prophecy.  Schwab’s book and its offspring are not so much a historical account of the past, but rather a programme for the future, in which technology will be used to make the world a better place.  This is hugely problematic, because these technologies have actually been used to create significant inedqualiites in the world, and they are are continuing to do so at an ever faster rate.

The problem is that although the espoused aspirations to do good of those acclaiming the Fourth Industrial Revolution  may indeed be praiseworthy, they are starting at the wrong place.   The interests of those shaping these technologies are not primarily in changing the basis of our society into a fairer and more equal way of living together, but rather they are in competing to ensure their dominance and wealth as far as possible into the future.  The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution seeks to legitimise such behaviour at all levels from that of states such as the USA, to senior leaders and investors in  technology companies, to young entrepreneurs eager to make their first million.  Almost all are driven primarily by their interests in money bent on the accretion of money; some are beguiled by the prestige of potential status as a hero of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In some cultures such behaviour is indeed seen as being good, but in others there are greater goods.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in large part a conspiracy to shape the world ever more closely in the imagination of a small, rich, male and powerful élite.

Is it not time to reflect once more on the true meanings of a revolutionary idea, and to help empower some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people to create a world that is better in their eyes rather than in our own?

 

[For a wider discussion of revolution, see Unwin, Tim, A revolutionary idea, in: Unwin, Tim (ed.) A European Geography, Pearson, 1998.  As ever, please also note that a short post cannot include everything, so remember to read this in the broader context of my other writing, and especially Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  For my thoughts on the other edge of the two-edged sword, do read my much shorter “Why the notion of ‘frontier technologies’ is so problematic…“]

 

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, capitalism, Development, Geography, Inequality, SDGs, United Nations

Interview with Teledifusão de Macau on ICT4D


It was so good to be in Macau and Shenzhen recently in my role as a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Computing and Society Institute.  During my visit, colleagues at the Institute had arranged for me to participate in Teledifusão de Macau (TDM)’s prime time Talk Show with Kelsey Wilhelm.  This was a great opportunity to share some of my current thinking about the interface between digital technologies and humans, and Kelsey made sure that it was a lively and fun half hour discussion – really grateful to him for this!

The show is now available on YouTube, and begins with an overview of the current state of ICT for development, before going on to discuss

  • ways through which people with disabilities can be empowered through the use of technology,
  • the importance of new technologies being inclusive, because otherwise they lead to new inequalities,
  • working “with” the poorest and most marginalised rather than for them,
  • the role of new technologies such as AI and blockchain in serving the interests of the rich rather than the poor,
  • cyborgs and the creation of machine-humans and human-machines, and finally
  • some of the ethical issues that need to be discussed if we are to balance the benefits of new technologies whilst limiting their harm.

I very much hope that what I have to say is thought-provoking and interesting.  We need much wider public debate on these issues!

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The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D


I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

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Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, language

Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education


I have all too frequently been asked to suggest examples of “best practice” in the use of ICTs for education, and have always so far resisted.  “Best practices” tend to be promoted by those who wish to assert their pre-eminence in a field, or make considerable sums of money by selling their “solutions”!  I strongly believe that there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” in education, and instead I argue that there are numerous good practices from which people can learn and develop their own local and contextualised educational activities using ICTs.

The opportunity recently to do some forward thinking with colleagues in UNICEF about the future use of ICTs in education, especially amongst some of the poorest and most marginalised children in the world, nevertheless provided the chance to reflect on the diversity of different dimensions of education in which ICTs are used, and also to identify examples of each from which we can all learn. The list below is a very attenuated summary of these case studies, drawing explicitly from different parts of the world and in different languages (although English dominates).  They were chosen in part based on the recommendations of colleagues with a wealth of experience working in the field, but the final choice of examples is my own.  Readers might like to add their own favourites as comments!

Visually impaired girl with BrailleEducational content and skills development

The development of different ICTs over the last two decades has led to an explosion of new types of content, and new ways of delivering it, increasingly through the plethora of apps on mobile devices.  Such content varies hugely in quality, in cost, and in the level of learning for which it is intended.

  • The power of multimedia One of the greatest strengths of ICTs is to bring learning to life through a diversity of multimedia resources.  In particular, games, videos and audio can enliven learning, and provide real world examples of how things work that cannot be experienced in schools.  Examples of multimedia include:
  • Re-versioning and localising content One of the benefits of open content is the opportunity that it provides for re-versioning existing content into local contexts.  Examples include:
  • Local content development Demand for local content in schools can also provide the basis for local economic growth in poorer countries of the world.  Examples include
  • Learning platforms for content and skills Content needs to be delivered in an appropriate and appealing format, that is also flexible and easily searchable.  Numerous such platforms have been developed, both for students and teachers.  Examples include:
  • Open and Proprietary Content  Many of the above initiatives are Open, but there are many Proprietary solution also available, especially for richer children.  One example where a government has chosen to purchase licences for proprietary content and make it available for free to its citizens is:
  • Teaching the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity  Some ICT-based initiatives have focused on new ways to develop the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy that are required building blocks for the more advanced skills of communication and creativity.  Examples include:
  • Assistive technologies enabling children with disabilities and special needs to access content About half of the world’s children with disabilities are out of school.  These are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in the world, and yet have the most to gain from assistive technologies.  Examples include:

Pedagogy and the practice of teaching

Shuang Bai TTS computer labThe role of the private sector has been substantial in disseminating new ICT-based teaching practices. For many years, ICT corporations such as Microsoft and Intel have provided basic courses and training for teachers in how to use digital skills in the classroom.  These have traditionally tended to emphasise training in basic “Office” skills software that can be applied to an educational context.  There are few convincing examples of successful teaching training initiatives that have really inculcated a comprehensive understanding of how the balanced use of ICTs can enhance the delivery of education in the poorest countries of the world.

Digital skills

laptopIn a world increasingly dominated by technology, the successful acquisition of digital skills by young people has become a high priority for many governments and companies.  It is important to differentiate between three broad types of digital skills: the basic skills necessary to use digital technologies; advanced skills specifically in areas such as coding and programming, often linked to an emphasis on the perceived importance of increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education; and the skills associated with knowing how to live in an increasingly digital world and to negotiate the challenges of digital technologies as well as their benefits.

Monitoring and evaluation

Unless high quality and appropriate monitoring and Girls school teamevaluation is undertaken on the impact of ICTs on educational outcomes, existing systems will not improve, and the real effects of new interventions will not be known.

Administration

It is widely recognised that the successful use of ICTs in education programmes is heavily dependent on the enthusiasm of head teachers, principals and school administrators.  An integral part of the success of such initiatives has been the design and use of appropriate Educational Management Information Systems (EMISs) that provide for digital collection, processing, analysis and reporting of school data.

Assessment

It is important to differentiate between the use of ICTs for formative and summative assessment

  • ICTs in formative assessment Many of the platforms and content delivery mechanisms through ICTs described above also contain quizzes and tests that can provide an important element of formative assessment for children.  Examples include:
  • ICTS in summative assessment ICTs are also increasingly being used for summative assessment, especially since more sophisticated systems are now available that enable securer communications and reduce the ability of students to cheat.

Access to the potential benefits of ICTs in education in low-resource environments

1Providing ICT for education connectivity and content in low-resource environments remains challenging.  The following examples illustrate some of the ways in which infrastructure, devices and content have been made available in these circumstances.

 

This is the first of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the second is on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.

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“The future of learning and technology in deprived contexts”: a report for Save the Children International


Save coverIt was an enormous privilege to work with David Hollow, Meghan Brugha and Mark Weber last year on a report for Save the Children International about the future of learning and technology in deprived contexts.  I am delighted that this has now been published in a slightly abridged version (available online here), and this post provides a short overview of our approach and our main findings.  The report looks forward to 2020 and 2025, and addresses three main issues;

  • the future of basic education,
  • ICT use in deprived locations, and
  • the use of ICTs in primary school learning, especially in deprived contexts

Method and approach

The report was based on: a detailed review of the literature; interviews with 32 leading authorities with direct experience of the use of technology in education, especially in low-income and crisis affected areas; a workshop that brought together 29 practitioners and academics from 9 countries working at the interface between technology and education to seek consensus as to the most likely scenarios that will emerge over the next decade; consultations with 22 Save the Children staff from 12 countries to ensure that their experiences were included in the report, and to validate our emergent findings; and our experiences of implementing and reviewing ICT for education activities across the world over the last 20 years.

Nine likely observations about basic education by 2025

Children 2We concluded that nine broad changes in basic education are likely to be apparent by 2025:

  • The pace of change in education is likely to remain slow in most countries
  • There will be increased diversity and inequality in learning practices and opportunities
  • Advocacy about the importance of qualified teachers will increase
  • There will also be increased advocacy about the need for fundamental curriculum and pedagogical change
  • The diversity of content provision will increase
  • There will be greater emphasis on non-formal and life-long learning
  • Holistic approaches to learning will become increasingly common
  • The private sector will play an increasing role in the delivery of education
  • The use of technology will be all-pervasive.

Eight generalisations about ICTs in 2025

Predicting the future of technology is always challenging, but there was general agreement amongst those we consulted that the following eight things are likely:

  • ICTs will become increasingly all-pervasive in human life
  • ICTs and their benefits will be increasingly unequally distributed
  • Digital technologies will become increasingly mobile, and newer types of mobile digital communication will be created
  • The costs of devices and connectivity will continue to decline
  • There will be a dramatic expansion in the production and use of large amounts of data, especially with the advent of the Internet of Things
  • There will be considerable increase in the personalisation of ICTs
  • Major global corporations, both in China and the USA, will play an ever more controlling role

ICT use in basic education in deprived locations

Drawing on both of the above sets of conclusions the main part of our report explores the implications for how ICTs will be used in basic education in deprived locations in the future.

ICTs in education in 2025

  • Our most important prediction is that the use of ICTs in education will become very much more diverse by 2025
  • There will be changes to the school systems of many countries that will encourage greater use of technology in education
  • In 2025 teachers will remain fundamentally important in education systems still dominated by schools.  However, in the best systems their role will have changed from being that of providers of knowledge to being guides to help children learn to navigate the world of digital information
  • There will be a new mix of digital content and device provision. Existing trends suggest that there will be much more digital educational content available, but it seems likely that much less of it will actually be used effectively by learners
  • Advances in the range of AI and IoT technologies combined with the increased power of big data analytics will enable much more personalised and refined assessment of pupils
  • There will be important changes in the role of parents and communities enabled through new online resources. It seems possible that the increasing failure of education systems across the world by 2025 will lead to a greater emphasis on learning outside school and in informal contexts

Implications for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas

Five likely trends for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas are:

  • There will be an increase in innovative solutions for ICT use in deprived locations; the use of ICTs will  become much more widespread in remote communities
  • Device sharing is already widespread in locations where access to them is expensive or difficult, and it is likely that this will continue to be the case in 2025
  • In areas that remain without much digital connectivity or electricity in 2025, it is likely that multi-purpose learning hubs, especially if they are co-located with schools, could remain a valuable addition to the array of options for delivering effective education and learning
  • Downloading and caching of key educational content, especially bandwidth heavy video, in locations where there is good connectivity, and its subsequent use in a distant unconnected school is likely to remain an excellent way through which content, and indeed management of administrative processes, can be undertaken cheaply and effectively
  • Learning will be increasingly mobile, and more of it will occur outside schools.  Parents who occasionally visit distant towns will be able automatically to download relevant learning content on their devices, including educational games and videos for their children, and everyone in their households could then benefit from accessing such content back at home.

ICTs for education in crisis affected areas

We identified a further set of likely roles of ICTs for education specifically in short-term acute crises, and also in long term protracted crises

Short-term acute crises

  • Mobile technologies will increasingly enable children fleeing such crises to continue to participate in both formal and informal learning
  • Much more extensive use will be made of online resources  to provide counseling for many different groups of people, including children traumatised by disasters and war
  • Online resources will be available specifically to provide children in acute crises with additional information about any crisis in which they are caught up so that they will be better able to survive
  • It is likely that by 2025 numerous different ICT-enhanced school-in-a-box solutions, combining connectivity, electricity, devices and content, will be available that can be set up quickly and effectively wherever in the world there is a need.
  • There will be much greater use of mobile phones by refugees to find out information about entering other countries, and what they need to know about the different cultures and ways of life there in order to survive

Long-term protracted crises

  • Many more digital community and learning centres will be created to provide online resources in refugee camps, where the ICT connectivity can also be used for a wide range of other purposes, including delivery of telemedicine and health training
  • Digital content, especially the use of video in multiple languages, accessible through robust child-friendly devices, can prove to be very valuable in such contexts to help create hybrid cultures of learning even where there is not Internet connectivity

Risks associated with digital learning in low-income and crisis-affected locations

While ICTs offer enormous potential for enhancing the delivery of appropriate learning for deprived children in marginalised areas, there are important risks that also need to be considered. These include

  • There is  an urgent need for all ICT initiatives, both in schools and more widely in community learning initiatives, to prioritise the safeguarding of children and the secure management of all information about children
  • A second concern that many have about children using ICTs, and especially the internet, is that of Internet addiction, whereby lives are ruined by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems
  • Third, many schools across the world, in both economically rich and poor countries alike, prohibit the use of mobile devices in school classrooms because they are seen as being disruptive, although other concerns over cheating, health and bullying are also often cited

These problems, though, do not mean that children should be prevented from accessing the Internet or using ICTs.  As discussed above, ICTs can provide very valuable learning experiences and indeed enjoyment for children, and any risks need to be weighed up against the overwhelming benefits that can accrue from using digital technologies.  The critical need is to ensure that children, parents and communities are indeed all aware of the threats that exist, and that action is taken by governments (both national and local), companies, schools and individuals to address them.

Our report concluded with a series of specific recommendations for Save the Children at both the policy and programme levels.

 

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